Jan 042016
 

Neil Armstrong, on his return from the moon said “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

What if the same were true of human knowledge? What if all human knowledge could, metaphorically, be hidden behind a carefully placed thumb? What if the entirety of human thought is similarly small in relation to the vast innate wisdom that permeates the Universe? What if, in reality, we actually understand very little? What then? What do we do? How should we act, if we must proceed into the next moment with the understanding that we have little understanding? If true, this might be one of the greatest of human paradoxes.

There are, I believe, reasons to question the scope of human knowledge.

The Universe is 14 billion years in the making—the Earth some 4.5 billion—yet we believe we have come close to understanding its deepest secrets in the four or five hundred years since Galileo, Newton and Descartes. On this trajectory, if we complete our understanding in the next two hundred years, or, being conservative, one thousand, what then for the rest of humanity’s future? Will there be nothing for them to ponder about the Universe and how it works?

Even worse, what if our “knowledge” actually drags us further and further from the infinity of the Universe? Is there a possibility our thinking is so mired in orthodoxy we can no longer see beyond the limits of our current beliefs? What if, by insisting we only look through certain lenses, we are becoming more and more blind rather that more and more wise?

Is it possible that 1000 years from now, rather than having used the scientific method to find ultimate answers, we will have set aside that entire belief system as an infinitely constricted lens into the nature of reality? Might we eventually come to understand that any human view of reality will one day be similarly viewed as infinitely constricted? Is it possible we will someday discover that reality is so far beyond any potential human capability we will find our most enduring satisfaction and happiness in the not knowing?

I believe humans will always be in love with the search for the most profound wisdom the Universe is willing to share. So in love, in fact, that even if we discover the deepest wisdom comes from not knowing, we will learn to love the not knowing.

Aug 132015
 

The temporary nature of life exposes its most enduring value and meaning. A delicate, fragile piece of porcelain has more value because we realize the ease with which its beauty might be ripped from our lives at any moment. A vessel made virtually unbreakable would seldom etch the same splendor in our hearts.

So it is with the delicate nature of those who know us and accept us for who we are. Their value in our lives is magnified by its impermanence; the magnificence of their unquestioning, unconditional love comes, in part, from its temporary, fragile nature.

If we could, would we return to an earlier time and cast-off the love, connection, and intimacy they offered in order to escape the pain and heartache that flows from having lost them? The answer is simple, but causes many to pause momentarily, especially in those moments when the sadness is fresh and the grief raw and unrelenting. In the end, we know that deep grief, and the tears that flow from it, are the price we pay for love.

It is said that a river cannot be halted in order to study its nature. When we fall under the spell of terrifying rapids, the melodious gurgle of a brook, or the majesty of water in free fall over a cliff, it is the impermanence, transformation and change that bind us to its beauty. If the current flowed forever without unexpected turns, protruding rocks, and the pull of gravity, we would never discern its power, grace, and beauty.

Life itself is much like the ever-changing, impermanent flow of a river, but in life, we find ourselves unable to witness its power and magnificence from afar. If we could, we might see the glory and majesty in a whole new way. Might the unexpected turns, the obstacles that rudely and harshly change our course, the free falls into an unknown abyss, contain a majesty we simply cannot comprehend as we are buffeted and battered by life?

With the perspective of time–more than ten years after his passing–I see the confluence and influence of my father’s life with so much gratitude and love. I see him for the gracious, kind, caring person he strove to be, and forgive him for the times he was so very human…and fallible.

Regardless of our beliefs about what transpires after this time on Earth, each of us is granted a kind of immortality here, in this place. Neil Postman once said “Children are the messages we send to a time we will not see.” By living the messages of those who have come before us, we alter the flow of human history in their name. Even when life is punctuated with turns, boulders and freefalls, with perspective, we witness the river of life as a thing of true beauty, understand that impermanence imbues it with majesty, and know that those we have loved and lost helped make it so.

Dec 292012
 

Note: I wrote the following essay ten years ago. It has become the heart of a new website: The-Dream.us. An accompanying post on this blog, “The Invitation,” explains more.

Imagine for a moment you have returned to your childhood. In your infancy, at an age that precedes memory, you were given a blanket, which, in the intervening years, became your constant companion. You ran to find it every time the world came at you in a way far more complex than your innocence could understand. It comforted you every evening as you prepared to enter, with great trepidation, the world of dreams. It protected you throughout the night and greeted you every morning. Some mornings you found it looking up at you from the floor, carefully positioned to keep the monsters at bay…under the bed and in the closet!

One evening, as you lie in bed caressing it, you note with alarm and sadness your faithful companion is aging, and with an increasing lack of grace. Its stained and fraying body seems somehow no longer up to the task of fending off the evils of the night. With a feeling of emptiness, you carefully set it beside you, afraid you will soon have to say goodbye to your friend and face the world alone.

That night, you are visited by a dream of incredible proportions. Lying next to you, where you set your worn blanket, is an exquisite piece of cloth that appears to extend as far as you can see in every direction. The patterns and colors, which moments earlier seemed dull and lifeless, are more beautiful than anything you have ever seen…or even imagined. As you examine it closely, its magnificence continues to emerge. The patterns are in a continuous state of flux. And as beautiful as the colors and patterns were when you first saw them, they become even more beautiful by the moment—the colors are more vibrant, the patterns ever more complex and interesting. The longer you stare, the more extraordinary is the sight in front of you.

As you examine the changing patterns more closely, you notice millions of small bits of color emerging from the interaction of the threads. Most dissipate quickly, with others emerging to replace them. But a few seem to remain longer and grow larger than the others.

Suddenly, you see a vile color emerge and, instead of fading into a pattern, it grows, seemingly out of control. Without warning this blood-red stain is spreading across a large portion of the cloth. Momentarily you wonder how you might stop its desecration of so many beautiful colors. Unexpectedly, you witness an amazing transformation. The blood-red stain is not destroying the other colors! They interact over time—blend to create a new ever more extraordinary palette. Crimson edged in gold. Infinite shades of amber. Purples and oranges like you never thought possible. You notice some of the original vibrant colors emerge unchanged, and for a split second, rather than rejoicing at their salvation, you are disappointed they too did not discover a new beauty by blending with the original stain.

You run for a magnifying glass to study the unfolding detail of the intricate patterns. You are amazed to discover that the patterns that look so magnificent from a distance contain millions of fibers and colors you truly dislike. You notice one particularly stiff, coarse fiber damaging those around it, and, without warning, the fibers let go of their mutual embrace and a tear races across the fabric threatening to rend the piece in two. Once again, to your amazement, the tragedy is instantly reversed as the cloth “heals” itself before your very eyes. And, even though you have no way to know for sure, it is clear the way in which the fibers reconnect adds flexibility and strength greater than had existed previously.

Then you are awake—back in your bed, as the morning sun streaks across the room. Almost magically, it caresses your blanket. With the sunlight streaming down on your old friend, you see it anew. Every shared adventure is written there in the folds. Every tear you shed for a lost toy…every hug you shared with your parents…every experience of sadness, joy, loneliness, love and pain…is there. Suddenly you see a brilliance arise from your very life itself. The worn blanket actually represents the millions of experiences that are now woven into those worn threads. And while they looked dull and faded, when you look closely you discover the colors that came from your life experience are actually complex, vibrant and extraordinary.

Then you notice a bloodstain from the time you skinned your knee and you remember the dream. And you wonder…

May 282012
 

 

If I am open to the road less traveled, life lies in wait to take me on extraordinary journeys. A recent such escapade began in the most unlikely of places—with an obscure comment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson mentions, in passing, a book Jobs reportedly reread every year. It wasn’t a book on technology, or one that explored business, economics, product design, politics, movies or music. It was an autobiography written by a Hindu spiritual figure first published in 1946. Just before departing for our recent vacation to Hawai’i, I purchased Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I turned the final page as the plane hit the tarmac in Honolulu. It was clear the road forward was about to take a radical turn—as I caught sight of the ancient volcanoes that formed the beautiful island of O’ahu, Yogananda’s work pointed me to three ancient texts: The Bhagavad Gita,  The Upanishads and The Way of the Bodhisattva.
These volumes are wonderfully disturbing. Wonderful, because, if I am open to the messages they offer, the Universe becomes a larger and more interesting place. Yogananda recounts times in which spiritual teachers would accurately foretell the future, live for months or years without eating or drinking, spontaneously heal those who were ill, levitate their bodies many feet off the ground and simultaneously appear in more than one place. I find these books disturbing because every neuron in my brain fights back, having been wired and rewired by western science. They collectively scream, “You cannot believe any of this…and even if you do, you better not admit it to anyone!”  The culture in which I was raised would have me pass these texts and ideas off as fantasy, fiction, witchcraft or perhaps even psychoses.
It might be possible to put the books of Indian & Tibetan Hinduism aside as a collection of wayward thought. But then I recall a surprise discovery in my Father-in-law’s library shortly after he died in 1999. There, amongst his books, lay many that recounted the spiritual traditions of the ancient Hawai’ians. Their spiritual leaders and healers were called kahuna. The kahuna, like the swamis and yogis of Hinduism, also performed many clearly impossible acts. There are those in Hawai’i who, to this day, will talk, for example, of witnessing spontaneous healing of human ailments.
Should you choose to set aside both Hawai’ian and Hindu spiritual tradition in order to hold sacred the wisdom of Western science and technology, then be prepared to set aside the ancient traditions of many of the indigenous peoples of the world—Africa, South America, Australia and others. It’s safe and easy to set all this “witchcraft” aside, and reflect exclusively upon the enlightenment heralded by the coming of Aristotle and western logic, science and analysis. I, on the other hand, wonder if I should be more open to rewiring my neural connections to allow the possibility of perception in radically new ways.
On a long walk up the ancient, expired volcanoes of Hawai’i, I recounted some of the stories I was reading to my daughter, Kathryn. “Do you believe them?” she asked. “At this moment,” I told her, “I am choosing not to disbelieve…to remain uncertain.” Because if the certainty of western knowledge has left me blind to—unable or unwilling to see—the reality of wisdom traditions that are broader, more complex, mysterious and infinitely more interesting, I want the possibility of being a witness to those traditions in the few years I have left in this life.
I wonder if, that too, was the road Steve Jobs wandered.
Apr 072012
 

 

As I reflect on the human journey, today is the eve of the most holy of holy days on the Christian calendar. I am informed, and confused, by words attributed to Jesus as he neared death: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”that is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” In this moment, I wonder if even Jesus, who tradition tells us could see beyond the reality of this world—what I call the finite—into the Infinite, had moments of doubt about the Infinite? In his excruciating moment of pain, it would not be surprising if, even Jesus’ understanding of the Infinite was obfuscated by his experience of the finite?
Even though I hope never to experience the finite in that same horrific way, I wonder if the Infinite is hidden from me also by my experience of the finite. For more than 60 years I have read hundreds of books that attempt to describe this world—from Quantum Physics, Evolutionary Biology and Moral Psychology to Buddhism, Confucianism and New Age Spirituality. Each with its explanation of what this world really is, and why we are here. What if every explanation we attempt actually prevents us from seeing what is beyond them?
I have come to believe the Universe is ineffable—beyond words. It is beyond anything we can understand from the perspective of the finite. And yet, we continue to manufacture concepts, images and paradigms to help us understand that which is ineffable. What if, instead of helping us understand, the paradigms obfuscate, distort and confuse?
What if we are actually in the Infinite—what many refer to as Heaven—right now, but are unable to see it, or experience it, because we remain so confused by what our minds think they are supposed to see? What if nothing I see is what I think it is? What if life has been gifted to me, not to comprehend the finite, but as a brief opportunity for me to see that what lies beyond is not beyond at all, but right in front of me, concealed by my thinking? But then, that too would be a paradigm, perhaps also keeping me from witnessing what is beyond. It is as if the paradigms that make up my world keep me locked in this place…keep me from the Infinite. It is as if, every time I try to see beyond, another view from the finite reflects me back to this world and this place.
Hundreds of teachers ask me to see that life is in being, not doing. They encourage me to see this moment—as I allow life to be lived through me and, to the extent I can, give up my ego—as filled with grace. It is in not knowing that I even glimpse what might be beyond the finite. The Buddha would have called this Beginner’s Mind. True knowledge is not found by thinking, I am instructed. But how do I approach their thinking, if it is about the non-belief in thoughts?  Is it permissible to use thoughts to get beyond thought? All truly is paradox. Yet somehow I feel that beyond the paradox…beyond the thinking…beyond the paradigms is the Infinite.
If the wisdom of the ages is to let go of all, to stop trying and simply be, then the ultimate paradox, the meta-paradigm if you will, is that it has taken so many words, concepts and paradigms for me to see that the Infinite is only available when I let go of all that led me to this moment.
Apr 062012
 

 

Note: This piece was recently submitted for publication in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Many years ago, I taught in a private high school on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. As faculty advisor in the dorm, I began each day at breakfast with the students. One freshman would frequently catch me in the dining room. “Mr. Breisch,” Sam would intone, “may I ask you a question?” I’d turn and say, “You just did! Would you like to ask another?” At the time, I felt our early morning repartee was nothing more than a way to point out a bit of irony Sam seemed unable to grasp. I now believe he was pointing me towards my future…a future in which life’s questions have become infinitely important; and answers are often more destructive than constructive.
So, even though we are not in line awaiting breakfast, may I ask a question? Or two? Have we lost the art of assembling provocative words into questions that inquire into the great mysteries of the Universe? To what extent do the answers we summon imprison our thinking and hold it hostage? When was the last time you heard a question so profound it left you in wonderment and awe? How often, in the face of questions, do we find ourselves in search of the nearest convenient answer, regardless of its ability to add a bit of wisdom to the human narrative? How often do we formulate questions for which we truly have no answer, as opposed to those whose sole purpose is to allow us to loose a carefully crafted declarative response?
Questions open us to possibilities; answers limit the future. Nowhere is this more clear than when facing a caller on the suicide hotline. In the presence of extreme desperation, which of the following do you imagine might invite you and the caller into a deeper conversation? “Suicide is not the answer.” Or “Would you be willing to share with me why you want to live?”
Lest you think my wandering through the subterranean jungle of human conversation relates only to deeply philosophical questions, or those regarding the end of life, allow me to stroll through a few of the forests that more often characterize day-to-day life.
In conversations with my wife and children I find myself too willing to jump in with a statement ending in a period, often a very large period at that. I wonder how our lives might have evolved differently if, when faced with a thought I found difficult to accept, I might respond with “That’s very interesting. Would you tell me more?”
Over the years, I have listened as many community issues have traveled the highways and byways of our public discourse. After acrimonious debate, we decided we did not want a hotel on south Batavia Avenue, but we would permit a shopping center on a portion of the Braeburn Marsh. We decided not to decide the fate of the north dam on the Fox River. Even now we find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding the proper placement of a drugstore in our downtown and have begun to take sides on the future of a forest preserve just to the north of Fabyan Parkway.
Because of my unique position near the center of many debates, I am often privy to the edges that bound the questions. As I have listened over the years, I have been struck by the dearth of sentences that end with the extraordinary question mark. Our “public hearings” are too often attended by people who have stopped listening.
The word “discussion” itself calls into question our intentions. Its evolution from Latin meant to “smash apart” or to “scatter and disperse.” Shouldn’t our community conversations begin with an intention to gather our ideas in a generative fashion rather than scatter and disperse them?
In the coming years, humanity will face moral and ethical issues more profound than any we have ever faced. Brain scans will allow us to know what others are thinking, thus obliterating even the most intimate forms of human privacy. Genetics will allow us to custom design our children. The harvesting of human organs will blur the line between life and death. These deeply challenging issues will require intricate, new answers. Unless these answers are preceded by the most profound questions we can conjure, I fear we will be forever lost in the subterranean jungle.
Nov 222010
 
This weekend, Judi and I joined our children in the Quad Cities, David’s adopted home, for a new tradition of enjoying their many pre-holiday events. If you haven’t been, I recommend it.
All weekend, the two of us sat in amazement in the presence of our children. I know David and Kathryn are no more amazing than millions of other emerging young adults, but since they are my children I demand the right to be in awe of who they are becoming, and speak of them as if they truly are God’s gift…because to me they are. What can bring me to my knees, is wondering why I have been given the gift of them in my life.
After expressing my disbelief on a social media page, a dear friend commented, in part, “Seems to me ‘everything’ you and Judi did explains their beauty.” I appreciate the generosity, but I see little way my efforts can explain the beauty in front of me this past weekend. As hard as I tried, as much as I wished to be a perfect parent, I grieve over the endless times I failed. I am saddened by the hundreds of times they longed for a listening and compassionate ear, and I found it necessary instead to attempt to fix or teach. I lament how often the stress of my life intruded on theirs in the form of unjustified anger and frustration. I mourn the lost opportunities when a different kind of attention would have nourished them in more abundant ways. And yet, in spite of my failings, they emerge as caring, compassionate, fervent young adults.
Judi has a growing passion, and a passion for growing, orchids. Last week, after more than a year, she coaxed one of her plants into rewarding us with three absolutely gorgeous blooms. They are stunning. And while I do not want to demean the loving care Judi gave them, their beauty is far greater than the effort to raise it. A bit of care, some water and a nourishing environment yield a thing of stunning beauty. The orchid rushes forth, becoming what it was always intended to be so long as it has a healthy environment and nothing gets in the way of its journey from seed to blossom. The magnificence of the blossom is contained in the tiny seed from which it grows. No matter how hard she might have tried, no matter the extent of her care or the nourishment she provided, Judi could not coax the plant into producing roses. Anything she might have done to try would surely have damaged this thing of beauty.
When people tell us we did a wonderful job raising David and Kathryn, I usually reflect that if we did anything well, perhaps we stayed out of their way just enough. We tried to provide a loving, nourishing environment, but we always knew they had to blossom into the amazing humans they were intended to be; an orchid if it was their birthright or a rose if that’s what was implanted in their soul.
So why have I been given the gifts of David and Kathryn in my life. Maybe, just maybe, they weren’t put here for me to be the teacher, but the learner. Perhaps they are in my life to teach me something about the unimaginable mystery, miracle and beauty of this Universe. This weekend was a magnificent lesson and I am grateful beyond words.
Jan 282010
 

In the western culture in which I was raised, there is a model of leadership which is highly influenced by the Newtonian worldview. Newton, who first proposed the laws of motion, believed, correctly, that the cause and effect relationships of physical motion could be accurately described. The future, if you will, of balls on a billiard table could be foretold if we have sufficient information regarding the initial conditions, friction and gravitational influences. Combine those laws of motion with the belief that sub-atomic particles are much like billiard balls and you came to the conclusion that, given sufficient information about initial conditions, the future of the world could be accurately predicted.

Defining leadership based on this worldview is easy. We look for a person who has the ability to describe current reality, paint a clear picture of the future we wish to share, and identify a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

Let me discuss each of these three leadership characteristics and share some reasons why I believe they are of questionable validity.

A leader has the best description of our current reality.

The figure is often referred to as the Kanizsa Triangle. I have displayed this figure to many groups and ask if the white triangle is larger or smaller than the black. The majority typically agree they are, in fact, the same size. I then simply ask how many believe there are NO triangles in the picture?

This is a powerful metaphor for the kind of thinking I do all too often. I take small, incomplete bits of information and use them to create much larger, complete pictures. I don’t wish to recount how often I did this with my children. I would walk into the house after a stressful day, see 30 seconds of activity and angry children. I would turn that into a complete picture of what they are up to,who did what to get them upset, their motivation, what they were thinking and why they are wrong! Unfortunately, I continue to make the same mistake with co-workers and friends.
A leader has a clear picture of the future we wish to share.

We often refer to this as vision. We talk eloquently about the power of vision. “If you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.” Unfortunately, we confuse vision as a compelling sense of direction, with vision as a precise picture of what the future should look like.

I once asked pianist Michael Jones about the importance of vision. Michael said, “There is a wonderful interplay between mastery and mystery. On one hand, you have the mastery of having and fulfilling a vision. But along with vision is imagination. Imagination is the path the heart loves to wander. You find yourself in places you had not conceived. The things I encounter at the piano I had not anticipated are the moments of grace I live for. It’s the mystery of finding things happening in my hands…composing through my fingers. This is not so much vision as it is life of the imagination. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that the future we ordain can be fulfilled the way we ordain it. If we live according to those rules the possibilities open to us become limited…it becomes a relatively narrow life.”

There is an additional aspect of vision on which I wish to comment. We want, and need, people to be motivated and inspired by their lives and their work. I realized some time ago that the word “inspired” and the word “spiritual” have the same root. The words “motivation” and “emotions do as well. I find it difficult to be inspired and motivated unless there is a spiritual and emotional content to my work. I have to feel that what I am engaged in is bigger than I. To the extent a leader can paint a vision that has a deep emotional and spiritual context, I will be fully engaged in the enterprise.

A leader has a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

It is said that every action we take has intended and unintended consequences…the intended consequences sometimes happen, the unintended ones always do!

After the second world war, the United States build a highway system connecting major cities. While there were a number of reasons to justify the investment, one was that highways would save the declining inner cities. By facilitating the movement of goods into the cities they would become more available and cheaper. The unintended consequence? People fled. The highways made departure from the inner cities so easy that suburban areas grew almost overnight. It was suddenly possible to live outside the older areas of the city, show up from eight to five for employment, and retreat to a new home in a nice neighborhood for dinner. This “savior” of the cities actually may have hastened their decline!

Taxing authorities usually argue that commercial development is good because it will increase the tax rate, thus keeping other taxes lower. Commercial development, I am told, will help keep my property taxes low. A recent study of numerous American Cities shows that over time, commercial development and property taxes go up together…lock-step.

So much for the intended consequences of the actions we take. Peter Senge, in his groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline, said, the solutions we implement today will often lead us to even bigger problems tomorrow.

Leading by following

So where does this lead? In On Becoming A Leader, Warren Bennis says simply, “At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.” I believe is was Fritjof Capra who said, “Healing the universe is an inside job.” These are powerful thoughts. They say the leadership comes from deep within; not from external views or visions. Leadership emerges from clarity of self. The more I know what is truly important to me–the values to which I am deeply committed–the more clearly I will see the path I need to walk.

Michael Jones did not sell his first CD until he was 38…he has sold millions in the intervening years. In spite of falling in love with the piano at age 2, he was unable to admit to himself and others that his gift lie in his music. He set out to become a management consultant and change the world through ideas; ideas carefully crafted by others and respoken by him. Michael found his gift partly because an elderly gentleman in a quiet hotel in Toronto, happened upon Michael playing a piano, thinking he was quite alone and “safe”. This wise gentleman, touched by the wonderful sensitivity of Michael’s music, looked at him and asked, “Who will play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Some years ago I came to know an artist in Chicago. Andrew Young, had a promising career as a scientist, with many opportunities to pursue research and academia. “In college I had a love for art but didn’t feel it was appropriate to pursue; in fact, I was very much afraid of it. I had a lower drawer at my desk, sort of my “altar”, filled with pastels, water colors, water color pads and colored pencils, all of which were impeccably arranged, neatly sharpened and color coded. Three semesters in succession I signed up for and withdrew from a course in color and composition because I knew what kind of door it would open. I was trying to conceal something that was clearly boiling in my spirit.”

Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, speaks of the way in which we normally teach sports. He likens it to a rubber mat with footprints. Unless the student steps on the foot prints in precisely the correct way, they are doing it “wrong”. What he came to learn is that the body has an innate sense of movement. The secret to improved athletic ability is to get the mind out of the way…thinking impairs natural ability.

What would happen if I stopped trying to live my life as if I had to place my feet on the correct space on life’s “rubber mat”. What would it mean if I followed my deep desires…to get thinking out of the way and make room to live life more naturally. For me this means living the life of the heart. Michael Jones said, “Our way of experiencing life, and our participation in it, becomes the art of all arts.”

I have had the privilege to know many people who have created wonderful institutions, art, music and ideas. Each of them are living lives largely dictated by beliefs, values and passions they would say, I think, are beyond their control. Each of them have pointed to significant moments when they needed to make a choice…and they chose to follow their passion.

So there is the conundrum. They lead precisely because, at the critical moment in their lives when they were called, they followed. They followed the inner voice that called to them. They took incredible risks…yet they chose the difficult, but extraordinarily joyful path. The path their heart called them to. Based on logic, analysis and cultural norms, each of them could have chosen a path of less risk…a path of greater predictable security…a path of less joy. But each of them chose a path of courage.

Each of them leads by following.

Jan 152010
 

If I close my eyes, even momentarily, I can return to any number of journeys through the woods and rewitness a bird’s feather or wispy seed float past, gently buffeted by the breeze. And, as gentle as that journey might appear, the feather has no control over the direction of its travels or its final destination. In the case of a seed, the future of its species might actually be transformed by this journey over which it has no control.

“Feather on the breeze,” is the phrase, Jake, a wonderful friend and English teacher, used to describe life in a note he recently floated into my life. As I have thought about how to live life in the face of Black Swans—the highly improbable, impactful events described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book by the same name—feather on the breeze becomes a wonderful metaphor. And yet (pardon the pun) it flies in the face of much conventional wisdom. In a search of the web, the first blogger I discovered, compared a feather-on-the-breeze-life with one lived largely on a couch with a beer in hand and TV in view. The author spoke of the horrors of allowing the winds of life to determine where we and our seeds are planted. “Take control of your life,” this author demanded as millions of his pixels splashed across my screen. Is it just me, or is the image of a feather gently following the breeze juxtaposed with a couch potato and a beer just too difficult to fathom?

What if all we have is swans? What if highly improbable, impactful events really do define my life? How might I see swans as the winds—be they gentle or tumultuous—upon which my life’s path is hewn? If my most carefully refined plans will ultimately collide with—and be demolished by—the unpredictable, what is the role of planning?

Don’t misunderstand; I know planning is necessary and useful. I just wonder if we too often miss the mystery of life—the “road less traveled.” Our lives are made up of both mystery and mastery. If we are slaves to mastering life through planning, do we risk missing the mystery…what the pianist Michael Jones once called “the path the heart loves to wander”?

I have asked many people about the trajectory of life. I even emailed the December 3 blog to my son, David, webmaster for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitor Bureau (QCCVB). “Dad,” he emailed back, “your article reminded me of an interview I did as a student at Augustana with a staff member, Doug, during an extremely brief stint at the Observer newspaper. As a result, Doug offered me a job as a web journalist…and eventually one as student web developer. A year after I graduated, Doug encouraged me to apply for this position. If I hadn’t met Doug during that “fluke” campus activity, I wouldn’t be working at the QCCVB today!” Welcome to the feather on the breeze life, son.

When asked, most people will admit their life landed in a place far removed from where they imagined it would. And if I listen very, very carefully, I often detect a tinge of guilt. “My life is good,” they tell me, but their sub-context is “but I was just so lucky. I benefited from so many flukes. I feel unworthy to take credit for the blessings I have been given.”

So in view of lives directed by the flight of swans, what do I tell my son about how to live the rest of his life? I would be justified—and safe—if I were to pass along any number of well-worn pronouncements. “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” “People who write down their goals are more successful then those who don’t.” “If we fail to study history we are doomed to repeat it.” These, and thousands of others, are backed by data that appears to prove their validity. Yet I wonder.

These pieces of advice rely on well-worn skills. Describe the present state, create a vision of the future and then identify the gap that emerges. Follow that with plans and endless “to-dos” lists you can dutifully check off on the journey from today into the future. What we cannot take into account is that swans—be they black and horrific or white and joyous—have the irritating habit of showing up, making all the analysis and planning obsolete and sending us back to square one.

What then do we do—what alternate skills might we employ—to live in a world in which a swan’s flight path might well collide with ours at any moment. I can think of three. The first is to review where we have been, not as a detailed study of the events of the past, but in deep reflection. What has life taught me about who I am and what it means to be human. The second is the ability to “be” more and “do” less—we are, after all, as many have reminded me, human beings, not human doings. The last is the ability, desire and willingness to dream. As Dee Hock, Chairman Emeritus of Visa, has written, “At times such as these, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream…the failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realize.” Perhaps a future blog will afford me an opportunity to think more about these skills.

One final story. I have struggled with these words—sat for hours trying to find the perfect metaphor. This morning I grabbed at random one of nearly 50 notes I received on the last Snowball weekend. It was Jake’s kind and generous note that ended up between my thumb and index finger. In that moment the winds of life had shown me the direction forward. I only needed to allow the words to appear over the horizon. And I arrived here without a beer, couch or television!